On For-Profit Colleges, Congress Gets Schooled—Again

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The Senate recently held its third in a series of hearings on for-profit schools, many of which stand accused of mismanaging federal dollars and employing sketchy recruitment tactics, only to have less than half of their students graduate. Among those under scrutiny are big-name proprietary schools like the University of Phoenix and Kaplan. When undercover investigators applied at 15 for-profit colleges, they found recruiters misleading applicants and encouraging fraud so the would-be students—and ultimately schools—could collect more federal aid. One admissions officer told an applicant to hide $250,000 in savings because “it was not the government’s business”; a representative from a Florida program told an applicant that no one would “come after” her if she didn’t pay back her student loans; still another recruiter called a $14,000 massage therapy course a “good value,” though a nearby community college offered the same certificate for just $520.

“I continue to be amazed by the questionable, and sometimes outright illegal, practices occurring within the for-profit sector,” said Senator Tom Harkin, who is leading the congressional investigation. “Critics say that it is only a few bad apples, but we need to take a hard look at the entire orchard.”

Harkin’s amazement is understandable. But the really amazing thing about this controversy is that it’s all so familiar. Twenty years ago, Senator Sam Nunn, the conservative Democrat from Georgia, led a series of hearings delving into financial aid fraud at for-profit colleges. High-profile investigations had revealed similar abuses—leading, eventually, to a series of reforms and amendments to the Higher Education Act of 1965....

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